Clootie wells and trees: Ancient celtic places of purification

Now that both my Iron Warrior novels are out, it’s time to talk about one of the themes that runs through them–the idea of defilement and purification.

In Warrior, Ride Hard one of the protagonists–Wynn, a young trainer of wild ponies–is beset by druids who are bent on defiling him along with other men they have captured and drugged. In plain language, the druids are intent on raping him as they have abused other captive men.

(Please note that I am not intent on disparaging the druids. My story is just that–a story. No one knows about the personal lives of those long-ago priests, and so I have exercised “poetic license” to tell a compelling story about individuals, not about a group of people.)

Wynn is bent over the sides of a sacred well by two malevolent druids. He escapes, but not until he is convinced that the high king’s two chief druids, Loch and Lucet, have assaulted him while he is unconscious. In the following novel Warrior, Stand Tall, Wynn seeks out the place of his defilement–the sacred hill of Tara–along with a few friends who are there to help him seek justice. But Wynn doesn’t want justice. He wants to be cleansed of what he feels is a deep disease, or inner contamination.

I’d like to talk about the healing and purification, through the means of the clootie well and the clootie tree.

This is not the only instance in my books where I bring up the clootie well and the clootie tree. In The Wakening Fire, the crippled Owen Sweeney MacNeill is taken to the sacred well each month by his loving wife, where she seeks to bathe his ruined legs in the holy waters. Later in that same novel, Owen is taken to sacred waters at Cloudy (Clóidigh) near Derry to bathe his legs. Later still, Caylith brews a “gruit,” or special herbal mix for Owen, using the branches of the hawthorn as well as other plants growing around the well.

In Wynn’s mind, the way to cleanse himself is through the common means of a clootie well, a well filled with water sacred to a spirit or a local goddess. For centuries, folks throughout the celtic world would cleanse a diseased or malformed part of their body in the sacred water. After the advent of Christianity, when the wells’ spirit was transposed to a saint or other religious figure, the wells became the focus of folk pilgrimages.

The word “clootie” or “clougthie” is actually Scotttish Gaelic meaning “cloth” or  “clothing.”

The tradition of dipping rags or cloths into sacred water is apparently a very old one found throughout modern celtic locales–Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales, and other places. Those seeking purification would dip a strip of cloth in the water, then apply it to the affected body part. After hanging the cloth on a nearby tree–in Ireland, usually a hawthorn–they would leave it to the elements. They believed that by the time the sun had bleached it and the passage of time had cleaned it, the part of the body it had touched would be cured by the attendant spirit or goddess.

Usually, the wells one sees today are adorned with Christian crosses, and there are areas designated for pilgrims to leave tokens. Originally, however, the wells were probably declared “holy of holies” by some attendant druid or representative of  the spirit that watched over the  healing waters.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

The well pictured here is from a site called Madron in Cornwall. The large cross, called the Boswarthen Cross, is located nearby.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

There are scores of sacred wells throughout the countries commonly called “celtic.” But sadly, many of them are beginning to disappear–usually through the ignorance of people, but often enough because of the lack of local laws preserving such precious sites from urban development.

An example of such desecration is the recent complete ruin of the Well of St. Brigid in Co. Dublin, Ireland, razed to make way for a building work. An article in Wikipedia mentions the destruction of such a well at Rath Lugh in the Tara-Skyrne Valley of Ireland that has recently been razed during the construction of a motorway.

The tree where the cloths were hung is known as a “clootie tree,” always located at or near the well itself. Both the wells and trees are seen to this day throughout celtic locales, especially in Scotland, but also in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and other parts of Britain. I mentioned that in Ireland, the sacred trees were commonly hawthorns, long thought of as sacred; in Scotland and other places, Wikipedia mentions that the sacred trees are usually whitethorn, though sometimes ash.

It is noteworthy that right up to the present moment, there are “clootie” trees throughout the celtic world. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see trees from apple to oak festooned with cloth, paper tags, even religious and other icons. There is even a modern offshoot of the clootie tree called a “wish tree,” sometimes seen as “wytch tree,” whereon one hangs good wishes for the future and other signs of luck. Students of religion will no doubt see similarities to India’s sacred Bodhi tree, and even to our modern Christmas tree.

Although I have not seen any sources that make the specific connection, I see the ancient “celtic tree” motif in the clootie tree. The motif, common nowadays in celtic design, seem to be an archetypal symbol of the tree of life. The hanging of cloths–and later, yarn, pieces of paper, even shoes and neckties–seems to reflect a universal human longing for the connection between our souls and the trees whose deep roots wind through the earth itself.

Below, I list the links to the works I have mentioned in this article. The last one (Warrior, Stand Tall) was published Sept. 5 and is available at a 15% discount for a limited time.

The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

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Who were the Picts? And what about those tattoos?

While reading about those mysterious people called “Picts,” I found out a few interesting bits that I’d like to share with my readers.

True or false? The Picts were really Caledonians, the people who later became Scoti to the Romans, and finally “Scots.” Answer:  PROBABLY FALSE.

True or false? The Picts bore blue tattoos on their bodies, virtually from head to toe. Answer: MAYBE.

I realize that I’m hedging my bets here. But almost 2,000 years after the Romans wrote about those people with picti, or pictures on their body, who’s to know for sure where they came from and what those blue marks really were?

Let me begin with the first “myth”–that the Picts were really just an offshoot of the Caledoni, the tribes that the Romans found when they invaded present-day Scotland at the dawn of the first century AD.

If the evolution of language is a way to trace the ancestry of a people, then perhaps it’s only a myth that our present day Scotsmen can trace their lineage to the Picts. Even though the Roman chroniclers were careful to distinguish among the people they conquered–and even those they did not–it seems that the Picts were one group of people, a distinct race, among others that the Romans found when they invaded the north of the great island of Britannia.

There is one school of thought that traces the Picts back to Iberia, the Roman’s name for modern Spain. Others think that the Picts originated in the Orkney and even the Shetland islands, two island groups that lie well north of the Scottish mainland. Could the original immigrants have come from Norway–or even Iceland and beyond–and settled in those islands, centuries before the Norsemen penetrated as far as Britannia itself?

Most scholars think that the Picts were a large distinct tribe that inhabited most of present-day Scotland until about the fifth century AD. Then they began to be subsumed with the people the Romans named the Scoti, a nation of people that emigrated from the region called “Dál Riada,” encompassing the modern day Inner Hebrides and a portion of Northern Ireland, modern Co. Antrim. On the satellite image pictured here, Dál Riada is in the shaded oval. Thus the Irish Gaels merged with the Picti to form a nation called Scoti, or Scots. The term “Caledonian” seems to be almost generic, a term the Romans used to refer to anyone beyond the great walls they erected to keep the savages from penetrating the rest of Britannia.

The question that no scholars have been able to answer is this: how could such a large number of people, spread throughout thousands of miles, have virtually disappeared in a few generations? It’s possible that instead of disappearing, the hardy Picti merely intermarried with the Scoti, to form the rugged, handsome people we now call Scots.

Mind you, this is a guess. No one knows for sure. One of the greatest mysteries of the Picts is their language. Not a trace of their language remains except in stone markings called “ogham,” a language that has been traced to the so-called P-Celtic tongue. Not a trace of their widespread early culture remains except in the form of standing stones with distinctive artwork, in unearthed burrows, and in the traces of stone houses, among other remnants.

Likewise, no one really knows the truth about the famous Pictish “tattoos.”

I’m almost reluctant to use the word “tattoo,” originating as it does from Tahiti/Samoa as late as the 17th century. In fact, in a short story I wrote about a blue-marked Pict, I used the term “pricked-in” to refer to the falcon embedded on his chest, and below you’ll see why I settled on that term.

The very word “pict” derives from the term used by  a Roman chronicler who thought that these people were covered with blue “pictures.” The blueness of the markings has been thought for centuries to be derived from a plant called “woad,” a member of the mustard family, whose ground roots render a distinctive blue dye.

Until recently, it was assumed that the woad plant was inserted under the skin after elaborate markings were picked, or pricked-in, with some kind of slender needle. But experiments show that first of all, the woad dye is short-lived, lasting only a week or two before it becomes so faded that it almost disappears. Second, anyone injected with woad paste or powder becomes very ill. It’s a substance that humans can hardly tolerate.

So how did the Picts make their tattoos?

Well, it’s entirely possible that the markings were not picked into their skin at all, but were painted–much the same as the Amerind “war paint.” I like to think that those who saw the distinctive blue swirls and designs were on the wrong side of the Picts’ better nature, and those marks were the sign of outright hostility–war paint, if you will.

Another plausible theory is that the blue paste worked under their skin was woad mixed with an iron-based pigment that would ensure that the marks remained, and that did not sicken the wearer.

I like to think that these ancient warriors, with a  culture based on matrilineal descent, were naturally drawn to the  intricate curved and geometric designs that we think of to this day as “Celtic” or “Pictish.”

Remembering that the Picts lived in a matriarchal society, ask yourself:  Who but a woman would have thought first of adorning herself with lovely patterns that highlight the muscles and natural curves of the body? You read it here first, my friends: Pictish tattoos were invented by a woman. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  😉

The early novels of Erin O’Quinn are centered largely in the northern portion of ancient Ireland–Derry, Inishowen, Tyrconnell (Donegal), Coleraine. From there, the characters have journeyed to sacred Armagh and Tara, south  to Wales, across Britannia to Deva Victrix, to Cambria, north to the great wall of Hadrian and beyond.

Join the growing number of readers who are beginning to learn about the wild-ass people of this exciting time on the cusp of written history through a series of unique novels.

Erin O’Quinn’s Manlove blog:  http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com/

Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

This short story explores, in part, the history of homoerotica in the 8th C AD. Why did Ireland stand apart in its “modern” attitude about gay love?

FalconZon#gay #fantasy #historical #erotic #romance
Kindle US: http://amzn.to/1WQ59IQ
Kindle UK: http://goo.gl/vxtk4T

I do everything backwards, I think. Here’s the prequel to the book above…all about the mother of the Pict Tawn. Just published! (March 2017) It’s much more mainstream, yet it has a certain sensual charm…

QUEEN’S STONES

#mf #fantasy #historical #romancequeen secret coll=pizap.com14893794293486

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/2mtvf90
Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2mbamgj
http://www.seatoskybooks.com/erin-oquinn/5744-queens-stones/?page=2
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/709851 (pdf)

Original art of woman by dreams2media Rebecca Poole

Ireland: A Landscape Built in Dreams

The Lagan, near Belfast after a rain

All my books about Ireland were written looking from my window at the rain-parched landscape of central Texas. If ever I needed an inner eye, an active imagination, it was when Caylith and her immigrants first walked on the soil of Éire–when they embarked from their little skin-clad currachs from the bay where today stands the city of Belfast at the juncture of the Irish Sea and the lovely Lagan River.      

From there, I needed to envision the lush rolling hills, the green bogland, the cattle-dotted land between the coast and the huge Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest lake. And the home of Father Patrick, the famous hill of Emain Macha, had to be not just distinctive but awe-inspiring–the place where the faith of a whole nation was born through the dedication of a man and his ever-widening ministry.

A panoramic view of the Hill of Macha, showing a modern roundhouse on the top

The Foyle not far from Derry

On the hill of Macha I set a large clay-and-wattle roundhouse and a perpetual bonfire, a reminder by Patrick to the people of Christ’s immortality. Even though that fire was my own creation, still it seems a logical fixture in the place where the later saint started his ministry.

Once Caylith and the pilgrims made their inland trek north to Derry, the settlement they built along the River Foyle, she naturally sought out the swift river and the large rocks imbedded along the bank and in the water itself. There she could fish for salmon and trout as she lay on a large rock, daydreaming as the cold, flashing currents swirled and leapt their way to the lake beyond, and from there to the northern sea.

The mighty Foyle, swiftest river in Éire

Many of those visions were mental ones. Writing that first romance, Storm Maker, I did not know how to navigate the web, how to instantly call forth the photos I show today. I’m surprised now, in retrospect, how close my imagination came to reality. And in some locales, I’m shamed at the disparity between the site and my inner perspective of the place.

One view of Trawbreaga Bay, Inishowen

Never mind.  The sites are vivid to me each time I re-read the passages where, for instance, in The Wakening Fire Caylith and Liam stopped on their way to Limavady and conceived their first-born under a red-berried holly. Or the winding bay, the lovely Trawbreaga Bay in Inishowen, where the two of them washed off the stench of their captured enemy in Storm Maker; and where later, in Fire & Silk, a future king established his first domain.

As the books continued and my ability on the computer improved, I was able to see actual photos of the treacherous Tory Island that figured so prominently in Captive Heart, the pyramidal Mt. Errigal with its rose-quartz color at sunset, the fingers of lightning that plague the north coast of modern Donegal, and much more, in Fire & Silk.

A rocky strand on Trawbreaga Bay

And yet, even with photos in front of me, I still needed to walk the land and sift the soil between my fingers. I needed to see the broken-knife shapes of the rocks on Tory and imagine them as resurrected warriors. I needed to see through the eyes of a future king the hill fort overlooking the Swilly River, and much more.

And so, even though these photos capture part of the spirit of my books, I can honestly say that my imaginary landscape is lovely and compelling too.

Mt. Errigal seems to reflect its color back to the clouds.

I’ll leave this flight of fancy with my imaginary waterfall on Mt. Errigal, as Mariana saw it:

She stood under a tall, rough escarpment, one that lay at an angle that would shield this low ground from the force of the prevailing wind. And then her ear was caught by a growl so continual and insistent that it took her several seconds to understand that a waterfall flowed from the bluff, hidden by a line of nearby tall pines. Enthralled, she walked toward the sound.

Emerging from the trees, she stood openmouthed. She had never seen a waterfall before. This one arched from the highest part of the bluff, catching the sunlight in its crystal sprays, tumbling and singing down the side of Errigal like a jeweled ornament. She soon understood the roar as a series of sounds—the rush of the water itself, the pounding of waves on rock, the echo it made as it tumbled and fell from Errigal’s thighs. Yes, she agreed with Flann. Errigal was a woman. She was a wanton, a beguiler, a siren, and a summoner of men. For the first time, she began to form an idea of Flann’s attraction to this place. 

As far as Flann goes,

He was walking into [a] recurrent dream. He wanted Mariana to see his mountain, his waterfall, through his eyes. Would the myriad diamonds of the cascades reflect back in her eyes? Or would the flashing brilliance of her eyes jump and swirl in his waterfall? He ached to find out.

Please come with me to ancient Éire and experience the landscape for yourself–both the real one and the one conjured in my dreams.

“Baylor’s Teeth” on Tory Island

Storm Maker…  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire…  http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart…  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk…  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard…  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall (coming Sept. 5)

A Bawdy Irish Tale: Battle of the Beauties

This blogsite has already re-told a bawdy tale about Maeve (Medb), the goddess known for her beauty and her insatiable sexual appetite. Here is another excerpt, this one from my first Dawn of Ireland romance Storm Maker, wherein not just Maeve but two other renowned goddesses enter the story–Brigid and Macha.

It so happens that Brigid is also the name of my heroine Caylith’s best friend, a fetching blonde; and Caylith secretly sees herself as the redhead Macha. One night, everyone is enjoying wineskins full of different heady brews, and one of the men, Ryan Murphy, begins to tell a ribald tale. Of course, both Brigid and Caylith listen closely while pretending to ignore the swilling, drunken men.

The story that follows is entirely my invention, but I can well imagine a story or two just like it in the mouths of the ancient filí, the bards, who recounted the boisterous legends of old and even made some up as they went along–just as I did!

THE BATTLE OF THE BEAUTIES

That night after supper, Ryan stood and lifted his cup to the crowd. “Have none of ye heard the story,” he cried, “of the battle of the beauties?” Laughing and red of face, Michael translated his cousin’s words almost as he spoke.

“This was a bit of time ago, ye understand, back when all of Ulster belonged to Ard Rí Murphy, High King over all these lands…” 

There were shouts of derision, for everyone knew that Murphy was never more than a cattle baron, a tribal chieftain. Yet in Ryan’s eyes he had attained the highest rank possible.

“…An’ the two loveliest women of the day, Bridget and Medb, sought to be crowned the most beautiful woman in Éire. Now King Murphy, at that time, was married to another beauty, the celebrated, red-haired Macha. An’ the two women, knowing of Macha’s renowned good looks, proclaimed that none less than King Murphy himself would declare the winner. For they knew that whichever one of them would win, Macha herself would lose.

“So the two women stood on a dais in front of the king, who had himself blindfolded, so sure was he of his ability to choose the right woman. Before he was to decide, his wife Macha told him tenderly, ‘Dearest one, let the contest be fair to all. Let us use a woman from your court to stand as a third contestant. I meself will choose her.’ 

“Now King Murphy was a great king, but in comparison to women’s brains, some say he was not so great as the legends would have ye believe. But others say he was wise beyond all other men. He agreed right away, an’ ye’ll decide which opinion to believe.

“Soon not two but three women stood on the dais in front of the blindfolded king. He stepped up to the first beauty and stroked her long hair. This was the lovely Bridget, she of the golden locks, whose beauty had caused the great Finn himself to swoon in desire, whose braids had wrapped around his groin as he slept. He tried to stand as close to her hair as he could, feeling the tendrils tighten about him. He stood there long enough to make a decision.

“Then he stepped to the next woman, the famous beauty, Medb, and he proceeded to kiss her full on the mouth. Now Medb was known for her unbounded appetites, and she seized his mouth and almost choked the poor man with her long, searching tongue. It took the king a few long moments to decide.”

By now, the men were cheering and stamping their feet on the wooden floor. I caught Brigid’s eye, and both of us headed for a far part of the room to try to ignore the end of the tale.

“And now he stood before the third woman. He reached out both hands and found her swelling breasts, rising out of her gown like ripe melons. He felt for a moment, uncertain.

“Now be it known that King Murphy loved his wife Macha beyond all others, and he accordingly loved every inch of her body. So he knew that she had a small beauty mole just—there, on the side of her right nipple. He bent forward and seized her nipple in his mouth and began to suckle, letting his tongue feel for a telltale mole.

“Sure enough, he found it right away, but he did not reveal his little deception, for then he seized the other as well. After another little while he backed away from the dais and raised both hands to the assembled court.

“‘Let it be proclaimed,’ he said, ‘that I have found the fairest woman in Éire. It is she whose breasts I have touched today.’

“And thus was Macha rewarded for a having a husband both virile and wise.”

Ryan’s story was met with such laughter and swigging from wineskins that I thought the din would never end. Brigid said, “This is typical, Caylith, of the behavior of great louts in a swine pen.”

I agreed, red faced. Deep down, where none would ever know it, I saw myself as Macha. I had felt Liam’s hands and mouth as the story was unfolding, and I blushed at my own little secret.

Caylith, Brigid, Murphy and many more engaging characters fill the pages of Erin O’Quinn’s novels. You will find them here:

Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard

How to be an Instant Irishman

‘Tis not just the lilting, musical tone of Gaelige that charms the ear and wins friends and sweethearts. The Irish have a way of speaking even curses that plays on the soul and begs to be sung.

I’ve gathered some of my own favorite Irish blessings, curses, drinking toasts and folk sayings. I’m sure you have a treasure trove of your own. If so, please add them to the comment section below.

When I could find the Gaelige, I put it next to the English translation. I’ve also added a few common endearments and other everyday expressions.

Cheers and sayings related to drink:                                                                                                           

Health! (Cheers!) Sláinte!

Ireland forever! Eireann go Brach!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Beannachtai na Feile Padraig!

Thirst is a shameless disease…so here’s to a shameful cure.

‘Tis the first drop that destroys you. There’s no harm at all in the last.

Good as drink is, it ends in thirst.

                        Blessings:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God hold you
In the palm of his hand.

May you live as long as you want,
And never want as long as you live…

May the road rise with you.
Go n-éirí on bóthar leat.

(And my favorite:)
May your feet never sweat.

 

Curses:                                                                                                                                                 

                                                                                                        

Burning and scorching on you.
Dóite agus loisceadh ort.

May you leave without returning.
Imeacht gan teacht ort.

May you fall without rising.
Titim gan eiri ort.

[And, if it’s a particularly cringe-worthy curse:]

The same to you.
Gurab amhlaidh duit.

Kiss my butt!
Póg mo thoin!  pronounced <pohg muh hoin>

Folk Sayings:                                                                                                 

Say little but say it well.
Beagán agus a rá go maith.

May you be across Heaven’s threshold before the Devil knows you’re dead.

He who gets a name for early rising can stay in bed until midday.                                                                   

Man is incomplete until he marries. After that, he is finished.

You can’t kiss an Irish girl unexpectedly. You can only kiss her sooner than she thought you would.

Wisdom is the comb given to a man after he has lost his hair.

God is good, but never dance in a small boat.

The man with the boots does not mind where he places his foot.

The only cure for love is marriage.
Nil aon leigheas ar an ngra ach posadh.

Many a time a man’s mouth broke his nose.
Is minic a bhris beal duine a shron.

 

Other sayings:

I put the following original sayings in the mouth of one if my characters, Ryan Murphy, a character in Storm Maker and The Wakening Fire. Ryan is a kind of home-spun cowboy who always has something to say about the ageless dance of man with woman.

The less said, the longer wed.

A woman’s mouth can be a man’s downfall–or the way to stand him up again.

If ye’d be wealthy, marry a smart woman.

When first ye wed, ye stay in bed.

 

Quotes about the Irish:

[The Irish]  is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever. ~Sigmund Freud                     

I’m troubled, I’m dissatisfied. I’m Irish.  ~Marianne Moore

 

Terms of endearment and everyday sayings:

The equivalent of “Hello” means “God be with you”:
Dia dhuit   < dee-ah dwit> or <dee-ah gheet>

My dear/darling/treasure…
A chuisle mo chroí...  <a quish/leh  muh kree>  Literally means “beat of my heart”

I love you.
Is tú mo ghra.  <ees too muh grah>

In conclusion, may I say

Goodbye… an’ blessings on ye.
Slán agus beannacht leat.

Those who enjoyed these expressions may also enjoy the characters in my novels–ancient Gaelic warriors, cowboys, brehons, druids, tonsured monks, high kings, St. Paddy himself, and many more. I use Gaelic words often, for I love the cadence and the soft blur around the edges of the language.

Author Erin O’Quinn

Note: the contracts expire on these titles in 2017. I will revise and re-release them.

http://www.bookstrand.com/series/3291
Kindle US  http://amzn.to/1w8PVgI
Kindle UK http://amzn.to/24BcIcj

doi triple white=pizap.com14897052049791
Fire & Silk (on Strand):  http://www.bookstrand.com/fire-silk

http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard

Cú Chulainn–Ultimate Irish Hero?

After reading several sources about the fabled warrior Cú Chulainn, I need to ask–was he really the quintessential Gaelic hero? Or was he, as Irish playwright Samuel Beckett famously described him, “the . . . patron saint of pure ignorance and crass violence”?

First, let’s get his tongue-twisting name straightened out. In the Irish Gaelic tongue, his name (a bit simplified) would be roughly   coo HOO lun   where the “ch” sound is similar to the Germanic “ch” sound, as in ach.

Every age, every culture needs its larger-than-life heroes. If  Cú Chulainn did not exist, he would have to be invented to fill a human need. Just so, the filí--the bards–of ancient Ireland needed to sing the exploits of a young man who was beloved of women, admired by warriors, respected by enemies, and indomitable in battle. In short, he was a man who represented all that the beautiful, wild land of Éire was to its people.                                                         

Legends about Cú Chulainn abound from about the end of the iron age, just about the time when Caesar was riding roughshod over Celtic territory. Perhaps there is a link between the hero and the conquerer here, but history is silent. Because Caesar’s exploits took place in Gaul, and our warrior  was centered in Ireland, there may be no more connection than a universal knowledge of the hero Achilles in the ancient Homeric epic, or that deep-seated need for a people to extol a national hero.

Cú Chulainn was not born with that name. Legend has it that he was the son of a god and a mortal woman. He was named Sétanta, roughly  sha DAN tuh  in Gaelic.

Although still a stripling, his aspect was so striking and his talents so amazing that he was pressured into seeking a wife. His fancy was for beautiful Emer–but she taunted him with the fact that he was still a boy and sent him off to learn to be a warrior.

So learn he did. He studied under a famous female warrior whom he not only bedded, but he sired a son by her daughter! He later married Emer, who became devoted to him. Cú Chulainn was definitely attractive to the ladies. But women would prove to be his undoing.

Again at a tender age, he attended a feast at the home of one named Culann, a sidhe smith who owned a huge wolfhound. As the legends have it, the dog attacked Sétanta, who killed the beast in self-defense. Feeling bad about killing the dog, the hero offered to stay until another guard dog could be trained. From that time onward, he bore the name “Cú” meaning whelp or young dog, and “Chulainn,” a form of Culann–The Hound of Culann.

Even such a warrior as Cú Chulainn would be just another legend if it were not for Queen Maeve and the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley. The mortal warriors of Ulster, true to a curse uttered by the goddess Macha, were rendered impotent for battle when Maeve’s army attacked. So our divine-born hero, unaffected by the curse, took them on single-handedly.

The standard of battle in legends was that one warrior could challenge another on behalf of whole armies. And so Cú Chulainn, greater than any warrior of the time, easily conquered any that Queen Maeve could send. Finally she was forced to make a bargain with him to end the bloodshed.

One of the most enduring aspects of Cú Chulainn was the “battle frenzy” or ríastrad, that seized him while fighting. Similar to the berserker aspect of the later Vikings, many a legend and picture of him shows him in full “warp spasm,” a term coined by the translator Thomas Kinsella.

Cú Chulainn died as violently as he had lived. Having angered the powerful Queen Maeve, he was cursed by her sending against him the deadly triple aspect of Goddesses called the Morrigan. To make a short tale of a brutal and bloody end, he was pierced by his own spears. He dragged himself to a standing stone and lashed himself there in order to remain standing. Most renditions of his death–including a famous statue in the General Post Office of Dublin–show him bound to the stone with a raven perched on his shoulder as a symbol of death. There is even a rock in Co. Louth fabled to be the stone he died upon.

As for my initial question–whether Cú Chulainn is a true hero or a symbol of all that is ignorant and brutal–I shall leave that for others to decide. If he is crass and ignorant, so then are the indomitable heroes of the Iliad, and mighty Beowulf, and for that matter the Biblical David and scores of other heroes who made their names not by their intellects but by their mighty deeds.

Erin O’Quinn’s romance novels are set in fifth-century Ireland, when deeds of old would soon give way to the godspels of Jesus as spread by tonsured priests and the famous bishop Patrick. 

The books are available as follows:

The manlove books, The Iron Warrior:

WARRIOR, RIDE HARD: http://amzn.to/P2eRDO

In U.K.  http://amzn.to/YxRtqv

WARRIOR, STAND TALL:   http://amzn.to/WoDkGS

In U.K.  http://amzn.to/13WTTNF

No Kindle? Find them on the Siren Bookstrand site: http://bit.ly/O7b5us

Storm Maker:  http://www.amazon.com/Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-Romance-ebook/dp/B00845V8X6
The Wakening Fire : http://www.amazon.com/Wakening-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008BKSGES
Captive Heart:  http://www.amazon.com/Captive-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008K2X1QA
Fire & Silk (on Strand):  http://www.bookstrand.com/fire-silk

Ancient Irish dog breeds: Wolfhound and collie

The small isle of Éire boasts the world’s tallest dog…and the world’s most intelligent dog. The first is the wolfhound, and the second is the border collie.

Yes, there are many other breeds considered to be “Irish,” among them the Irish setter, water spaniel and varieties of terrier. Today, in the spirit of my blog, I want to talk about the two that we can trace to pre-Christian times, or at least (in the case of the collie) back to the time of the Viking invasions in roughly the 9th century AD.

No one is sure when the wolfhound “arrived” in Éire. Perhaps, like the giant elk, it developed because the sheer size of the elk required the evolution of a huge dog to pursue and bring it down. Scholars have argued for a date 3,000 years BC to around the 5th century AD, but there is no consensus.                      

The wolfhound is, in a word, humongous. Modern AKC size standards are a minimum of 32 inches at the shoulder. One man writing in 1790  referred to the dog as being 36 inches; even before that, Campion in 1571 said, “They (the Irish) are not without wolves and greyhounds to hunt them, bigger of bone and limb than a colt.”

Thus as big as they are now, the wolfhounds were no doubt even larger up until a few hundred years ago. When the wolves began to die out in Ireland, so too did the large hunters of wolves. Only after careful breeding did the wolfhound survive, and even thrive.

The coat is most often wiry. The animal is muscular and deep-chested, with an appearance often described as “commanding.”

In spite of its size and apparent ferocity, though, the wolfhound is a gentle dog, very attuned to its human companions. Some breeders feel that due to its sensitivity to humans, it makes a good guard dog because it can sense malicious intent (say, on the part of an attacker or burglar) and react swiftly.

Given the size and overall appearance, it is not surprising that the wolfhound became a byword in Irish folklore because of the exploits of a mythological god-warrior once called Sétanta. As a child, Sétanta was said to have killed the giant dog of Culann in self-defense. From that time on, he was called “Cú,” after the Gaelic word for “whelp” or “pup” and Chulainn after the name of Culann.                                                                                                               

There are some who  will argue that Irish collies are actually older than the wolfhounds. It is certain, however, that they were bred from the dogs that the monks used starting in the 6th century AD to tend their cattle and sheep. When the Vikings swept across Éire, plundering the monasteries, the monks fled to Scotland with their cattle, sheep and of course their dogs.

An author colleague, Kemberlee Shortland, has written to me of the derivation of the word “collie”:

“The Border Collie  . . . was first bred in Ireland! Not the Borders of Scotland. The word Collie is an Anglicized word from an ancient Irish word no longer in use that meant ‘helper’. The Irish word coileán means pup or puppy. That word stemmed from the ancient word for helper.”

“Over the centuries, those dogs moved into England, but because of the farming in the Scottish lowlands, the dogs thrived in the region and large scale breeding came about. Who didn’t want a dog who could fetch sheep from the side of a mountain while you stood in the valley whistling at it?! This is why they became known as the Border Collie, aka the Scottish Border Collie . . . a collie or helper dog bred in the Borders of Scotland. In reality, they should have been called Irish Collies.”

Regardless of which breed came first, few will argue that the working collie is on the genius scale of canine brains They have been bred for centuries to take care of errant cattle and sheep, and they seem to have an unerring way of knowing just what to do in every circumstance. Here is an amusing story Kemberlee wrote to me:                      

“Incredibly smart dogs. I think Daisie was about two when we took her to our friend’s farm to see if she had the aptitude for herding. She’d never seen a sheep before in her life and Robert said to just let her off the lead in the pasture. A small flock were at the top of the incline in this particular pasture. Daisie ran up the right flank of the field, circled the sheep and brought them down to us. She ran over to me with a look of ‘Man! Can I do that again?’”

I would like to end this article with a reference to another writer colleague, Miriam Newman, who is involved in dog rescue. If you go to her Blue Rose Blog (see my blogroll on the right side of this page), you will see why she has devoted hundreds of hours to the rescue of dogs of all breeds.

I’m sure Miriam and Kemberlee both would join me in urging you to hug a pup today! Sure an’ if it can’t be an Irish pup, or if ye have no pup, visit your local shelter and learn about unconditional love.

Slán, Erin O’Quinn

If you live in the New York area, follow this link to rescue an endangered pet:www.middlemutts.com